Mapping Chicago’s Gangland during the Roaring Twenties

Frederic M. Thrasher, CHICAGO’S GANGLAND PREPARED BY FREDERIC M. THRASHER 1923-26. [Chicago, 1927 or later.]
Offset lithograph printed in two colors, 25 ½”h x 17 ½”w plus margins. Folds as issued, with a few tiny breaks at intersections.

A remarkable thematic map documenting the distribution of gang activity in Chicago, compiled by groundbreaking sociologist Frederic Thrasher.

Chicago’s Gangland was originally issued to illustrate Frederic Thrasher’s seminal 1926 study The Gang: A Study of 1,313 Gangs in Chicago. Thrasher’s concern was not primarily with “The Mob” of Al Capone, but rather second-generation immigrant children who evolved from “play groups” into youth gangs on the order of the Jets and Sharks from West Side Story. His central conclusion was the identification of a place he called “Gangland,” “a geographically and socially interstitial area of the city.”

“… the gang occupies what is often called “the poverty belt”—a region characterized by deteriorating neighborhoods, shifting populations, and the mobility and disorganization of the slum. Abandoned by those seeking homes in the better residential districts, encroached upon by business and industry, this zone is a distinctly interstitial phase of the city’s growth.” (Thrasher, pp. 22-23)

To compile his “Chicago’s Gangland” map, Thrasher drew on the century-old technique of thematic mapping to illustrate and even explain social phenomenon. It was pioneered in France in the 1830s by writers such as Adolphe de Angeville, who among other things mapped phenomena related to education, morality and public health. Later applications included maps by Charles Booth and Florence Kelley documenting living conditions and poverty in London and Chicago respectively. To my knowledge, Thrasher for the first time applies thematic mapping to the depiction of organized criminal activity, to support his thesis that such activity thrives in urban “interstices.”

The map depicts the city from the lake shore west to Austin Avenue and from 95th Street in the south to Bryn Mawr Avenue in the north. “Parks, Boulevard and Cemeteries;” “Industrial Property;” and “Railroad Property” are indicated by different shadings in gray, while gang turf is shown by red triangles for “Gangs with Clubrooms” and red circles for those without. Particular ethnic, racial and religious concentrations (e.g., “German,” “Black,” “Jewish”) are labeled and outlined in gray. Dozens of notations in red provide added information, such as “Gang Camp (Auto Thieves),” “RR Depredations,” and “Jewish-Polish Frontier.”

The map is extremely rich in information, can be a challenge to decipher, and  invites myriad questions: Who for instance were the “Dukies” at 43rd and Stewart and the “Houseboat Squatters” along the river, not to mention the “Hobohemian Drug Gangs” near the intersection of Chicago and State?  When one pulls back from the details, however, taken at face value the map does seem to support Thrasher’s central claim that gangs thrive in the “interstices” between ethnic, racial and religious communities and industrial and residential zones.

Persuasive Maps: The PJ Mode Collection, 1222.01.